Middle East

Thank Trump for Enforcing Obama's 'Red Line' in Syria

This is not enough to restore the world order once sustained by U.S. deterrence. But it's a start.

You've got to draw the red line somewhere.

Photographer: JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Samantha Power should send a thank-you note to Donald Trump. Power made her reputation as the author of "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide." It persuasively argued that the U.S. has a special responsibility to protect potential victims of genocide.

Worldwide Reaction to U.S. Military Strikes on Syria

Barack Obama liked the book so much, he made Power his foreign policy tutor when he was still a senator. He brought her to his White House after he won the presidency and made her his ambassador to the United Nations in his second term.

In a cruel irony, Power's warnings were ignored by her former pupil when Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens. She remained in her job. She gave powerful speeches. On the inside she pressed the president to do something about the mass killings. But Obama declined. He never enforced the "red line" he articulated in 2012, on chemical weapons in Syria.

But on Thursday, Trump did. He ordered 59 Tomahawk missiles to be launched at the al-Shayrat airfield in Syria, the base from where Syria launched a horrific sarin gas attack earlier this week.

The critics and proponents of intervention in Syria have already started reciting their talking points, but it's worth pausing for a moment.

It's significant that Trump changed his views quickly on Syria following the gas attack. Early reports are that some aircraft and runways were destroyed. But for now this act is mainly symbolic; it sends a message but won't change much on the battlefield.  

In the 1990s this kind of thing was known as "cruise missile diplomacy." After al-Qaeda brought down two U.S. embassies in Africa, Clinton launched missiles at training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. He launched the missiles against Saddam Hussein after the dictator kicked out weapons inspectors. By the end of that decade, and especially after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, this tactic became an emblem for ineffective half measures.

After eight years of Obama, cruise missile diplomacy looks far more muscular. Obama never attacked the Assad regime, even as it committed atrocities year after year. This is not to say Obama has not intervened in Syria. Beginning in 2014 he began airstrikes against Islamic State targets. He also sent special operations forces to help train up local fighters and armed a largely Kurdish militia to fight against the jihadis.

Obama is not primarily responsible for the people Assad and his enablers -- Russia and Iran -- have killed and displaced. But his failure to enforce his warning on chemical weapons weakened the international system. Norms like the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons are not self-enforcing. They require a superpower like America to deter other dictators from future violations. When the U.S. abdicates its responsibility to make good on its red line on chemical weapons, it invites mischief from rogues all over the world. So it's not surprising that China's predations in the South China Sea, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Iran's meddling in Yemen all happened after Obama punted on the red line in Syria.

The fact that Trump responded so quickly to President Bashar al-Assad's latest atrocity is a good first step in restoring deterrence. But it will take more than cruise missile diplomacy to restore the international order that has been collapsing in the Obama years. Trump should plan for something bigger.

At this point, it would be good for Trump to press his national security team for a plan to destroy Assad's Air Force entirely. He uses his aircraft to drop chlorine bombs and sarin, like he did this week, and he has dropped barrel bombs that have destroyed so much of his country since 2011. The world will be a better place with these weapons destroyed.

The argument against such an escalation is that it may benefit the Islamic State and al Qaeda. This was the case U.S. military leaders made to Obama back in 2013 when he punted his red line promise to Congress. But back then the U.S. was not engaged in a war against jihadis in Iraq and Syria. Today, the U.S. does work with local fighters in and around Raqqa, the Islamic State capital. In Iraq, Iraqi forces with U.S. support and air power are close to liberating Mosul, the city the Islamic State captured in 2014. In 2017, the danger of incidentally aiding the Islamic State by attacking Assad has diminished.

Finally, this makes good political sense for Trump. Democrats have accused Trump of colluding with Russia's influence operation against Hillary Clinton in the election. They say he may be compromised by Russia and will end up doing Moscow's bidding. Taking on Russia's most important client in the Middle East is an easy way to dispel this notion.

And who knows? If Trump can hasten the collapse of Assad's foul dictatorship, or at least end his ability to gas his own people, this White House may end up earning strange new respect of the liberal internationalists so disappointed by Obama's careful inaction. You know who I mean -- people like Samantha Power.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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